By Vanessa Wang
Ms. Hu was the first one I noticed at the Warrene Academy. They talked about her beautiful slanted eyes, the boys did. During office hours, the male students waited outside her door, forming a line that went around two walls. One by one, they were invited to the other side of the windowless, white door, and for a whole minute, sometimes two, the lucky boy had Ms. Hu all to himself.
The boys came out the office with a drunken look, unable to walk a straight line. A saccharine fragrance permeated the air each time a boy walked out and another entered—like strawberries, but also like decayed roses. A dim yellow light from the office slipped through the door crack, but I was never able to see anything else; the thick perfume half-blinded me, I suspect. “Come in, my dear,” Ms. Hu’s tinkling voice called.
The area outside Ms. Hu’s office was always swarming with boys, and I dared not join them, new to the Academy as I was, and a girl, too. I settled for observing from afar, squatted behind the potted plants by the staircase. At the end of each office hour, Ms. Hu exited her office and immediately locked the door behind her, trying the knob twice to make sure. The boys who hadn’t had a chance to see her would have to wait until the next time, she announced, flashing dimples at the corners of her raspberry mouth. Once, she turned around and stared straight at me with those long, foxy eyes.
She wore gray and brown suits and carried a handbag in the same solemn hues, with a golden lock that caught the light in the hallways. Her stilettos raised her petite figure off the ground, and her heels made even clicking sounds as she walked. Despite her effort to walk with her back erect, as if balancing an invisible book on her head, she wasn’t very good at walking at all. She stumbled, and would bend forward to rub her ankles. Her ears, I noticed, were positioned high at the sides of her head, and formed pointy tips at the end. A bushy tail hung from her taut knee-length pencil skirt, swinging to the movement of her behind, left right left right.
Did no else notice these things, or was I losing my mind?
At the school cafeteria, the woman behind the lunch counter looked at me with bespectacled fish eyes, the same pitying stare of aquatic pets behind glass tanks, as she served me food. I stared at the fried cod fillet in my lunch tray and felt my breakfast rush up my stomach. The boy waiting in line behind me uttered something. He wore a concerned expression but the sounds that came out his mouth made no sense. “Grrr, grrr,” was all I could make out. His wide mouth spanned across his whole face and the loose skin under his chin, spotted with large warts, vibrated with each croak.
In math class, Ms. Raven called on me to solve a problem: “If there are twenty-seven chickens and thirty-three rabbits in the same cage, how many feet are there?” Try as I might, I saw only two skinny legs and a giant pair of wings before me. Did no one else see them—the ruffled, dirty feathers along the length of her arms? Ms. Raven spread out her wings, separating each gray plume, a chalk nested at the tip of one wing. The woman had no arms or hands. She frowned and clucked, tousling her carrot mane, stomping her wiry legs.
I spent hours in front of the mirror, wondering if the mole on my shoulder was an early sign of a spot. A rough patch of skin could, in fact, be a form of scales. And who was to say that without deliberate separating, I would not grow webbings between my toes? I washed myself four times a day, and scrubbed my skin raw.
An aunt insisted that my face used to be rounder, while now it was more like an oval. I ate double portions all week, even forcing myself to swallow the fish from the fish lady. I ate and ate, stuffing my cheeks with food like the boars, pigeons, penguins, hyenas, and owls sitting with me at the lunch table. The cacophony of roars, howls, and chirps made a fresh kind of music that was strangely comforting.